Gone



"Whuzzat, Tollie?" Frisco gestured with his squared snout, indicating the hard, opaque sphere, roughly twice the size of a tennis ball, lying on the cracked pavement.

I circled the object, placed a wary forepaw upon it then withdrew quickly, shaking my head. " It feels hard," I said. "Like bone."

"Mebbe you can crack it open." Frisco cocked his head. "Like a nut."

"What do you know about that?" I stared at him. He returned the look and shrugged, his dark face inscrutable in a way only a German shepherd could manage. Had I told him, during my delirious ravings after he dug away the rubble that had blocked my escape from under the porch, about that time I'd raided my Master's stash of hazelnuts? I didn't think so, but—

I returned my attention to the sphere that rested, ominous and brooding, on the asphalt before me.

Think, I scolded myself, panting. That's what border collies do, isn't it?

But thinking had become a laborious process since the Bombings. My AI implant wasn't much good now that there was no 'Net to connect to. Now that the Greenoans had gone and—

"Something coming," Frisco snarled. A ridge of hair on his back stiffened and he pulled his lips back to revealing the sinister sickles of his canine teeth. Seconds later, the ridge settled back into place. "Cat," he muttered. "Buckeye."

I looked up. Sure enough, weaving around the rubble—a car tire, a headless doll, a broken flower pot from what used to be the O'Hare's house—an enormous, short-haired, orange-striped tom-cat made his way toward us. Dust rose from his fur, and his tattered right ear bore a fresh wound, still oozing. For all of that, Buckeye carried himself like a businessman with important matters to tend to, walking with authority and a trace of smug superiority.

"I bear news, comrades," Buckeye eased himself into a sitting position, his tail continuing to twitch.

I ground down, hard, on my back teeth to repress the impulse to take out my frustrations and worries on Buckeye. A low growl rumbled in my throat.

"There, now," Buckeye said, affixing me with a keen, clear gaze. "Don't you want to know what became of the Masters?"

"They're gone," I whined. "Gone, gone, gone. And left us behind." I raised my muzzle skyward and howled.

"Is that what you think?" Buckeye leaned forward, pressing his whiskered face so close to my snout that I could smell his breath. He'd recently dined on a mouse. I licked my lips. So hungry.

I clinched my ears tighter to my head, but not before I heard it. Purring. He's purring. I stared at him, incredulous.

"Someone took them, while you were sleeping."

"Trapped in the rubble, you mean." I took a step forward.

He ignored my comment. "Rounded them up," he said. I studied his green eyes, open and guileless, for once.

"What—why?" I sputtered.

"Dangerous, here," he said. He glanced around, allowing his gaze to linger on the gaping hole in the ground where the Madisons once lived, and on the collapsed roof on my own former abode. "No water. No power, after the Bombings. Afraid of disease. Afraid the Greenoans will come, to finish what they started."

"How?" I asked, trying to imagine the number of vehicles it would have taken to evacuate the neighbourhood. "So many lived here—"

"But not so many survived."

Frisco shot Buckeye a warning glance.

"And they left us behind?" I began to pace, five strides one way, five strides the other.

Buckeye shrugged. "Priorities. People first."

I closed my eyes and shuddered. My worst nightmare, come true. Master, gone.

"You'd best be moving on," Buckeye said. "See that?" He nodded toward the sphere on the ground. "Cameras. They're dropping them everywhere, running a close-proximity info-send. If they come," he gave a meaningful look to each of us in turn, "they'll round you up. And then—who knows?”

"What about you?" I asked.

"Cat colony just outside town," he said, kneading the hard ground with his front paws. "They won't find me, there. Lots of mice, in the ruins. I'll be fine." He hissed at the sphere, took a swipe it with a lightning-fast front paw, then turned, tail in the air, and made to leave.

I swallowed, hard, and closed my eyes. "Buckeye," I said. He looked back over his shoulder. "Thank you."

He bowed his head, a gesture so subtle I almost didn't catch it, then strutted away.

"What'choo make of that?" Frisco asked, coming over to lean his shoulder against mine.

"I hate to think he's telling the truth," I said. "But I believe him."

"Me too."

"Now what?" I whimpered. I lowered myself to the ground and placed my chin on my paws.

"We need to go."

Weariness, in my bones. Grey inside, without Master. I should lie here and wait. Sleep. "You go."

Frisco stood in place, his ears upraised. " 'Copters."

I shivered. No matter how miserable I might be right now, at least I lived. If I were to stay, perhaps that should cease to be true.

Frisco levelled a lingering look at me. "I saw your Master, alive, before I crawled into the rubble after you. Don't you want to find her?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned away. The rasp of his dry paw-pads on the asphalt grew less and less prominent, till I could no longer hear him padding off.

I stared at the spot where my house had once stood. The place where Ena and I spent so many happy years.

Even if Frisco spoke the truth, would she still be alive now?

I have to know!

With an effort, I forced myself to move. Though it contradicted all of my instincts, I trotted away from the only home I'd known.

"Hey, Frisco," I shouted. "Wait up."

Hearing no response, I galloped to the ridge. By the time I reached that vantage point, my rib cage ached from the force of my labored breaths.

"What took you so long?" Frisco asked, rising from a clump of tall grass where he'd trampled a resting spot. Without waiting for an answer, he began to lope westward.

I followed.

***

How we made it through the next three days, I cannot say. I fell, from time to time, into a catatonic state, my mood dark as a moonless night as I lurched in Frisco's wake, suspended in the nightmare that my life had become. We skirted ruined towns, foraged in compost heaps and trash cans.

Always, Frisco spurred me to move when my instincts screamed that I should simply lie down and let my life-force slip away. He goaded me, called me names. He nipped me, once. At other times, he admonished me to stay hopeful.

What he refused to do was leave me behind. At times, I hated him for that.

During the bad moments, I reassured myself that our partnership would be of limited duration. We'd lived in the same neighborhood, that was all. Once I found Ena—

"Hunh. Almost there."

At Frisco's words, I forced myself into a semblance of alertness as I looked into the valley ahead of us.

"Truck stop," Frisco said, his voice radiating self-satisfaction. "Still in operation."

We approached the building from the east, scurrying down the conifer-studded hill, layers of dried pine needles soft under our paws.

Frisco paused part-way down, peering around the branches. I halted behind him.

The faded brick of the main building suggested age, but a recently-built addition sprouted off to one side. Likewise, a new section of pavement to the north of the building sported bright lighting, while the illumination remained sporadic on the older stretch of asphalt.

Frisco nodded his head. "Makes sense," he muttered.

"What?"

He gestured toward several parked trucks with his muzzle. "The 'Net's down, right?"

I closed my eyes and tried to connect. Nothing. I grimaced. "Yeah."

"So, they can't run the one-driver GPS-controlled convoys, like they used to. More drivers, more trucks. More trucks, more space needed." He paused. "And, more chances to hitch a ride."

I licked my lips. "But they might round us up. Take us away."

"Look. Do you want to find your Master, or not?" He stomped his right front foot for emphasis. "We need to look."

"But—"

"Head for that truck, there." With his muzzle, Frisco indicated a tractor-trailer parked on the fringe of the brightly-lit area. The sleeper-equipped cab wasn't new, but it wasn't ancient, either, and the gleaming chrome suggested that the driver took meticulous care of the vehicle.

As I moved to follow Frisco down the hill, I realized his omission. He'd mentioned finding my master, but not his. He thinks Yvan's been deployed, I thought. Because he's a Reservist.My brow furrowed. Maybe I'd been wrong about Frisco. Maybe he worried about the Masters after all.

When we arrived at the target vehicle, Frisco flopped down on the pavement beside it.

"What now?" I asked, panting.

"We wait."

"Wait?" My voice scaled up, and my forepaws danced on the pavement. "I thought we were looking for the Masters."

"Can you drive?" Frisco levelled an icy stare at me.

"Um, no."

"Then we wait for the driver."

"Hey, youse." I glanced around me, and saw nothing. Then, following the direction of Frisco's glance, I looked up. Way up.

The driver's side window of the truck's cab had been lowered a couple of inches. And then I saw the small face in the window—black and white, with tan-colored triangles over the eyes. Up-pricked ears. A dog. I snorted. Of sorts. Smaller than Buckeye.

"What you want?" The voice, again.

"We're looking for a ride," I said.

"So is everwan else," the dog replied. "Why I should help you?"

"We could protect you," I offered. "And your master."

Wrong thing to say. The little dog lunged at the window. "No need help. I bite hard. You doubt?"

I shook my head. "Sorry. I didn't mean—"

"Look out!" Frisco's voice.

"He can't get through the window," I protested.

"Not him," Frisco jerked his muzzle toward the shadowy section of parking lot. "Over there."

I turned and noticed a tall, broad shouldered woman with shoulder-length blonde hair walking toward us. A white plastic bag dangled from her left hand. The breeze carried the scent of cooked chicken, causing my mouth to water. How long had it been since I'd eaten? I wavered on my feet.

Not too intimidating, I thought. What's Frisco

Then I saw them. Three men, one carrying a baseball bat and one wielding a golf club while the third clutched a large rock in his right hand. Concealed from the woman by the vehicle to our right, they stood poised. Waiting.

We need to stop them. I turned toward Frisco, but the big shepherd had already taken two steps toward the men.

"On three," he whispered.

Sscrrritch! I'd stepped on a rock, and the noise it created grating across the asphalt sounded, to my worried ears, as loud as summer thunder. I froze in place, but the three would-be assailants seemed too intent on their approaching quarry to notice.

"One. Two." Frisco's voice came low and confident across the short distance between us. I bunched the powerful muscles in my hindquarters. Frisco's ears flattened in anticipation. "Three!"

Frisco's forepaws caught the guy with the baseball bat square in the back, knocking him to the ground. A frenzied barking ensued in the background, followed promptly by the blaring of an alarm.

I hurled myself at the golf-club-carrier, seizing his right wrist. He dropped his makeshift weapon and yanked his hand away, cursing.

As the third man raised a rock above his head, I yelled at Frisco. "Duck!"

Frisco heard me just in time, and dove to the ground. The rock whizzed past his left ear.

The stone-thrower searched the pavement for another weapon, while baseball-bat-guy staggered to his feet and took two steps toward me.

I heard footfalls on the hard surface of the parking lot. Reinforcements? I gritted my teeth and spun to look. A pair of security guards approached, guns drawn.

Baseball-bat-guy threw a venomous glare Frisco's way, then spat on the pavement. Then all three of the men we'd attacked raised their hands in surrender.

The alarm stopped bleating. I looked back at the truck, and saw the little dog peering through the window.

The security guards pulled out wide zip-ties and secured them around the wrists of the would-be assailants with a facility that suggested this was an oft-repeated task. The man I'd bitten grunted in pain but offered no further protest. Once the men had been subdued, the blonde-haired woman drew closer, taking in the scene with widened eyes.

"They belong to you, lady?" The taller of the two guards glanced at the woman, then nodded toward Frisco and me.

She hesitated for a moment, eyeing us up. I winced. Frisco, with his matted coat and sunken flanks, didn't look like any prize, and the twigs and burrs snarled in my fur did nothing to enhance my own attractiveness. I plopped on my haunches and allowed my tongue to loll out, offering what I hoped would be interpreted as a friendly overture.

"If not," the shorter guard said, shrugging, "we have our orders for what to do with strays."

If we high-tail it as fast as we could go, we might make it to the shelter of the tree line. Might.

I shot a glance at Frisco and tensed.

"Yeah, they're mine," the woman replied breezily. "I leave them outside the truck, in case—you know." She motioned toward the three men.

"Things're so desperate these days. These guys, in better times, they wouldn't—" The taller guard jerked his head toward where the three men stood, slump-shouldered, and I noticed for the first time how thin their arms looked. "We do our best to keep the 'stops safe. Heaven knows, without you truckers, nothing'd get through, especially with the damage to the rail lines."

The woman nodded, murmured her thanks, and left the guards to herd their captives back to the truck stop's main building.

"Coming?" the woman said, glancing over her shoulder at Frisco and me.

We didn't wait for a second invitation.

***

Life settled in to a steady routine—travel the highway with Lora and her toy terrier, Hyku, and guard the truck during pickups and deliveries. Between jobs, we stayed at Lora's trailer on a campground north of the truck stop.

I felt my strength returning, and I regained the weight lost during those first few days after the Bombings. Though many things had changed for the better, one thing remained constant—my aching sense of loss without Ena. Each time we stopped, I sniffed the ground and the air eagerly, seeking any sign of my master.

Nothing.

"Is it so bad, this life?" Frisco asked me one day as a late-April breeze riffled our fur.

I shifted position on the pavement, raising my head to study an approaching woman. Just a tourist, I told myself, and relaxed.

"It's just—I miss her," I confessed. "Don't you miss Yvan?"

A cryptic expression shifted across Frisco's face, so quickly I couldn't read it. He shrugged. "You don't mourn spilled kibble," he said, frowning. "You just eat it."

I took his meaning. Take life as it comes. But we border collies had never been good at that.

Besides, how could he not miss his master. Unless—maybe Yvan had been mean to him? He didn't seem the sort, but you never knew, with humans.

I opened my mouth to ask a question, then noted Frisco's stern look and swallowed the words, unasked. Sparta and Athens, I thought. That's what we're like, him and me. He's the brawn and I'm the

A shrill yap interrupted my thoughts. Since we'd arrived on the scene, Lora let Hyku run loose at the truck stops, trusting us to look after him. That yap sure sounded like his voice, but where'd he gotten to?

There. I shuddered as I spotted Hyku walking toward a huge Rottweiler whose muscles rippled under a sleek coat.

"Hey, you," Hyku said. "Whazzamatter, you lost? No, I know, you lose your brain, no?"

The Rottie blinked. "Care to repeat that?"

"Why, you deaf?" Hyku displayed his teeth in a broad grin.

Not caring to witness the inevitable outcome, I loped over and interposed myself between the two dogs.

Now what?

"Watch whatcha say to my friends," Frisco drawled, strutting toward us.

Seeing himself outnumbered, the Rottie snorted once, then stomped away.

"What were you thinking, mouthing off to a Rottweiler?" I hissed at Hyku as Frisco and I shepherded him back to the truck.

"It was on my buck-buck list."

"Bucket list," I snarled. I rolled my eyes and turned to look at Frisco, expecting a terse remark to put the upstart in his place. But instead, Frisco opened his mouth in a panting grin.

"Bucket list, huh?" he said, his tone contemplative. He nodded. "Everyone needs something to look forward to. It is best to point one's muzzle toward the future."

I stared at him. Sparta, philosophical? I shook my head and racked my brain for a witty retort—not as easy a process as it once might have been, with the 'Net down. But then I noticed the brooding darkness in Frisco's eyes.

What's on your bucket list, Frisco? I wondered.

***

By the end of May, the fresh greenery on those trees that remained standing made the world look brighter and more hopeful. Though the 'Net had yet to be restored, a handful of radio stations had resumed reporting. The news they brought was good. Slowly and through great effort, humans were shifting the tide of the War in their favor. We saw the evidence ourselves—streaks of neon blue light against the night sky signalling the departure of Greenoan ships, half a dozen at a time. Yes, there was reason for hope.

One day, we started a new delivery run north of Toronto, along a winding and up-and-down roadway that led us past lush fields. I saw, for the first time since the start of the Greenoan Conflict, acreage dotted with grazing cows and even horses. Maybe today's the day, I told myself.

When we jumped out of the cab at New Requiem, where Lora was delivering supplies to a local grocery store, I told Frisco and Hyku I needed to expend some energy.

I trotted down the main street, head high. Now that I sported the bright orange safety vest Lora insisted on fitting each of us with when she put us on duty, I felt confident no one could mistake me for a stray.

Noise to the west of the small town attracted my attention—the banging of hammers, the chatter of voices. I raised my head, sniffing. Fresh-sawn lumber. Curious, I trotted over to investigate.

As I rounded the corner of a side-street on the outskirts of town, I skidded to a halt. To my right, workers bantered as they erected the framework for a large building. Straight ahead, on the parking lot behind a large, one-storey steel-sided building with the letters A-R-E-N-A on it, dozens of plasta-dome structures had been arrayed in neat rows. Ropes zigzagged between the structures, and the articles of clothing pegged to them fluttered in the breeze. In the centre of the encampment, two men and a woman wearing military camo uniforms stood behind a table loaded with bread, fruit, and pancakes, serving up food as members of the settlement formed a good-natured line, plates in hand. Some community members were already sitting at the picnic tables, eating.

I wove my way around the eating area. People smiled. Children laughed. Some folks even extended a trembling hand, seeking to pat me.

But I didn't pause until I'd sniffed every one of them.

I lowered my head. No Ena. I'd been so sure.

But there's Reservists. I'll have to tell Frisco—

I turned to face in the direction I'd come, and frowned when I saw Lora, Frisco, and Hyku approaching at a trot, accompanied by a number of other people. Some carried short-barrelled weapons, of the sort that had become ubiquitous when the Greenoan War had erupted eight months ago. Lora herself brandished the handgun she'd carried in the truck's glove compartment since the incident with the three would-be assailants.

"What's up?" I asked Frisco.

"Rumor of a pocket of Greenoans. Soldiers cut off from the main group, skulking around the hillside, yonder." Frisco gestured with his nose.

Behind us, a tall, white-haired man with a Reservist uniform spoke in reassuring tones to the people who had so recently sat down to enjoy a meal. Moving in an orderly fashion, children, youngsters, and the elderly, along with several teenagers, headed into the main building. Men and women deemed capable of staging a defense ranged themselves in positions assigned by the tall Reservist, while a small group armed with guns began marshalling on the grass south of the asphalt.

Without a word, Frisco began to trot in the direction of the latter party. I took a step after him.

"You two, off to the shelter," Lora said, looking at Hyku and me and pointing. "Now."

I shot a longing look in Frisco's direction, then lowered my head.

"Tollie, whass goin' on?" Hyku yipped.

"With me, squirt," I said, deliberately turning my gaze from the gun-armed group. "I want to hear what's on your buck-buck list. All of it. And after that, how about we entertain the kids, huh?"

***

When the tall Reservist opened the door and told us we could come out, I watched with a detached air as people began to make their way through the entry-door and into the sunlight. I'll wait till the crowd thins out, I thought. Unless Frisco hunts us up first.

"Beth." I saw the Reservist leader place his hand on a dark-haired woman's shoulder. He moved closer to her, and his voice dropped so low I couldn't make out the words. But I could guess at the content of his message, for as he spoke, the woman's face crumpled and she sagged into a nearby chair.

Someone who didn't come back, I thought, feeling an ache in my throat.

Feeling a surge of panic, I hastened for the door. Frisco's Sparta. He's tough. Despite my efforts at reassurance, I felt a rising dread as I scanned the line of returnees streaming back in loose single file.

And then I spotted Lora.

She staggered under the weight of her burden, but fended off an offer of assistance from a nearby towns-person. Just before she reached the pavement, she laid Frisco gently on a patch of grass and hollered for someone to find a vet.

I galloped over, barely noticing the heat of the asphalt under my feet as I sped across the parking lot.

With an effort, Frisco lifted his head. "I'm sorry, Tollie," he said.

"Sorry? For what?"

"I—told you I saw your Master being rescued. I didn't—"

I turned away, cursing in my heart the cruelty of Sparta and the unadorned truth.

"Why?"

"Because—you needed hope."

"And Yvan?" I turned back to face him.

"I was there, helping, right after the bombs fell. Search and rescue, like I've been trained for." His paused, sides heaving. "He ordered me to wait while he went back in for the last person." Frisco lowered his voice. "I shouldn't have listened."

I cast my mind back over the past months, understanding now why Frisco had cut me off, whenever I tried to talk about his master.

Frisco's brow furrowed. "Don't be sad," he said. "With Yvan gone—this, what happened, it gave me a chance to strike back at them. I don't regret it."

I swallowed.

"Tollie, promise me something."

"O—kay."

"Even if you don't find Ena, make room in your heart to love again. The way I made room for you."

I stared at him for a moment. "You—you said I was a burden, and a tenderfoot, and—"

"You were," he agreed. "All of those things. But you were loyal, and company. And I needed that, in a dark time."

"I never thanked you," I whispered.

"Nor I, you," he replied. "I am, now. You gave me purpose, gave me a reason to keep going. Without you—"

A man wearing a stethoscope approached and kneeled beside Frisco. He lifted Frisco's head and examined the gash in the skin behind the right ear.

"Look," Frisco said. "I may not have long—"

"Don't say that." The comment came out reflexively. Between the tale told by my nose, and the rattling of Frisco's indrawn breath, I knew he spoke the truth.

"Tollie, know this. I may be Sparta, and you Athens, but you will forever be my friend."

"And you, mine."

I managed to choke out the words before the lump in my throat took over. Then I rested my chin on Frisco's back.

Frisco slipped away less than an hour later. I raised myself to my haunches and I sang my loss, a long, mournful, undulating call hurled toward the unheeding clouds. Silence, after, and eyes upon me. I lowered my head, abashed. You are in the company of those who have suffered their own sorrows, I told myself. I raised my head and for the first time, I looked—really looked—at the people around me, seeing them as individuals and not just as beings who were not-Ena.

I understood, then, Frisco's message. Enough sadness had darkened the world. Those of us who remained had an obligation to do their best to lighten it, for the others.

I will try, I whispered. But no promises.

***

High on a hilltop overlooking New Requiem, there lies a rounded rock as tall as a man's shoulder. It rests in a place where the wind whispers truths you can half-hear on a summer's evening as poplar leaves rustle and a stream chuckles in the distance.

Sam Masterson, the man who died repulsing the Greenoan attack, was buried at the New Requiem cemetery. But Lora, with the permission of the field's owner, scattered Frisco's ashes here on the hill, near the rock. She thought Frisco would prefer such a setting. I think she judged well.

After the Greenoan Incident, Hyku left town with Lora, but I couldn't find the heart to resume the nomadic life. Instead, I made my home in New Requiem, becoming a member of a small pack of dogs fed and cared for by the community members.

When I tired of playing fetch with the neighbourhood children, I often trotted up the hill to lie with my chin on my paws, thinking. It's where I felt closest to Frisco. Sometimes I talked to him, and in my imagination, he replied.

Those visits had become more frequent in the past two weeks. Ever since the 'Net returned, and I was able, at last, to scan the casualty lists for the name I dreaded to find—and did.

Since that day, it seemed to me that the world became a duller place, as though the sun had lost a portion of its power. Food no longer had taste, and I had to force myself to eat.

On one sunny day that nonetheless seemed grey, judging by my own internal weather, I staggered up the hill. My sense of loss, sharpened by knowing what had happened to Ena, seemed as keen as the day Frisco had died. Though I knew it would do little to lighten my heart, my mind insisted on replaying those last moments with Frisco, and I remembered raising my head and hurling my anguish toward the uncaring sky. As I relived my loss, I lifted my muzzle once again and prepared to give voice to sadness.

And then I remembered something else.

You are in the company of those who have suffered their own sorrows, I had told myself that day. In the company—

I sat on my haunches for a moment, head cocked and tongue lolling out. Then, without a backward glance, I rose to my feet, shook myself, and trotted down the hill toward New Requiem.

***

I'd been on the porch for an hour, now—long enough to question the impulse that had brought me here, and more than enough time to develop an ache in my left hind leg as a result of lying in an awkward position. Panting, I rose to my feet and re-settled myself more comfortably. As I did so, I noticed that my perch afforded a splendid view of the ridge above town. Wish me luck, Frisco, I murmured.

The crunch of tires and the hum of a car's engine alerted me, and I raised my head. The dark-haired woman who emerged from the vehicle looked just as I remembered her.

Beth, I reminded myself. The Reservist called her Beth.

Her face had looked sad, that day in the arena when she'd gotten the news about her husband. Now, her expression looked solemn, but her eyes had laugh-lines beside them, as though she'd regained her access to humor.

Beth's eyes widened as she noticed my presence, and she regarded me in silence for a full minute, grocery bags in hand. She nodded briskly, just once, before striding with confident steps toward the front door.

"Well? Are you coming in?" she asked. She could still smile, and the compassion in the look that accompanied that expression broke through the clouds of my sadness.

Wagging my tail, I stepped through the entry-way.





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